Burkhard Wehner, Universal Basic Income and the Reshaping of Democracy: Towards a Citizen’s Stipend in a new political order, Springer, 2019, vi + 61 pp, pbk, 3 030 05827 2, £44.99
This sixty-one page essay on Citizen’s Basic Income sets out from the presupposition that ‘the questions whether, when, where, and how a universal basic income could eventually be put into political practice have played a minor role in this discussion’ (p. 1). Readers of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust’s own output on the feasibility and implementation of Citizen’s Basic Income, and of the vast amount of research literature on the same topics reviewed on its website, will know that this is not true of the UK. As all of the references in this book, apart from one reference to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, are to Wehner’s own publications, and those publications are nearly as short on references as this one, it is somewhat difficult to know what he has read: but it would appear from the sentence quoted above, and from much else in this book, that his knowledge of the now voluminous literature on Citizen’s Basic Income is somewhat limited, and certainly does not extend to the significant amount of research material produced in the UK. Statements such as ‘… most defenders of basic income do not tend to be very specific regarding how it would be financed’ (p. 4) and ‘the present debate has failed to make clear the winners and losers under an unconditional basic income regime …’ (p. 4) make it even clearer that his knowledge of the Citizen’s Basic Income debate globally is minimal, and that his knowledge of the UK’s debate is nonexistent. A visit to a BIEN annual congress would help.
We can agree with much of what Wehner says about the political difficulties of implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme, and with his sense that some of those advocating for a Citizen’s Basic Income are somewhat unrealistic about the kinds of Citizen’s Basic Income scheme that might be possible in the current social and economic context: but whether his own suggestion that governments should legislate for a Citizen’s Basic Income for a generation yet unborn, rather than for this one, is any more realistic, the reader will have to judge ( – although interestingly a realistic proposal for a Citizen’s Basic Income for a single year young adult cohort that they then keep as they grow older, with the same age cohort the next year receiving a Citizen’s Basic Income and keeping it, and so on, is not a million miles from Wehner’s suggestion, and is an option on which detailed research has already been done (https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/research/publications/working-papers/euromod/em12-17)).
Wehner’s arguments for the desirability of Citizen’s Basic Income, his responses to objections to it, and his comments on pilot studies, are often well expressed, but all of them can be found elsewhere. Again there are no references, and there should have been. The proposals in chapter 8 for ‘Basic Income states’, parallel to existing states and with different borders, rather departs from Wehner’s own insistence on feasibility.
The book feels a bit like a rather long master’s degree dissertation: but unfortunately if it was one then it would fail for being without a literature review and almost entirely devoid of references. Someone who knew nothing of the existing Citizen’s Basic Income literature might benefit from reading it: but they would be better advised to turn instead to Standing’s Basic Income or to one of the many other introductory texts on the subject, particularly as the price of this short book is so high. Anyone with any acquaintance at all with the existing Citizen’s Basic Income literature would have no need to read the book. It is difficult to see why Springer published it.
The publisher’s website describes Wehner as ‘an independent scholar and theorist in economics and political science. He has developed alternative theories and political concepts of democracy, social and monetary policy, and the labor market. He also writes fiction on related subjects.’ Quite so. He should become rather less independent, should engage with the global Citizen’s Basic Income scholarship community, should acquaint himself with the literature, and should then ask where he can make a useful contribution.